Susannah Self takes us through her compositional process ahead of the première of Synapse for clarinet in Bb and electronics with Philip Edwards on Tuesday 28 September at The Craxton Studios in Hampstead, London.
This year I took on a lot of extra young composition students via the Junior Guildhall Composition Department’s new online course. As a result, I am teaching students as far away as Moscow and Hong Kong. Each term the young composers receive six one-on-one lessons which lead towards a performance by two professional players. One option is to compose for one instrument and soundscape. This is an area close to my heart since my latest physical opera HER BODY: The Anatomy of a Woman (which just premièred at The Tête a Tête Festival), presents a compositional narrative of sound/filmscape interfacing with live performance.
In HER BODY, the 40-minute soundscape consists of a combination of tightly composed notated music with contrasting improvised sections which emulate the abstract work of visual artists such as Rauschenberg and Pollock. On top of this I largely improvise the voice part and physical theatre. It is the paradox of interweaving these two qualities that are integral to my composing methodology of quilting. It is an added bonus to share the technicalities of my approach with students as we develop their pieces.
My new work SYNAPSE, just published by Composers Edition, is for clarinet in Bb and electronic soundscape. It is commissioned by the New Wind Festival and created for the clarinettist Philip Edwards. Phil is a big player with a rich resonant sound which is perfect for playing against a soundscape of differing dynamic intensities. The function of synapses in the brain provides a platform on which to compositionally further engage with my fascination with the nature of random systems. Synapses simultaneously demonstrate a state of chaos that interface with their own unique sense of formality. This process connects with my eclectic methodology of compositional quilting in which abstract shapes can be contained and even made sense of within a grid. I find it extraordinary that this tangle of synapses is the epicentre of human thought and memory! The Psychologist Anthony Storr contextualises their paradox in the following way:
Music plays a special role in aiding the scanning and sorting process which goes on when we are asleep or simply day dreaming.Anthony Storr: Music and The Mind. p. 107
The exact chronology of composing SYNAPSE goes like this:
1. Create a through-composed 8-minute soundscape by improvising and layering up on Logic Pro with different synthetic sounds and live treated sounds.
2. Improvise a clarinet piece over the soundscape in one 8-minute, un-interrupted take on Logic Pro.
3. Use the notation facility in Logic Pro as a template to transfer and re-compose the clarinet part with more detail and nuance on Sibelius.
4. Whilst engaged in process 3, simultaneously layer up new ideas sparked by working on the new clarinet material.
5. Publish the score which contains a drop box link to the soundscape plus a rehearsal facsimile of how the clarinet fits into the soundscape.
[These processes are not only inspired by my work with John Cage and Andrew Toovey but also the strata layering that you find in Harrison Birtwistle’s Earth Dances. Fitful, tightly constructed motifs are shared between elected groups of instruments. These tumble out in sets of resonating, canonic blocks. The overall effect of Earth Dances is to sound like the rock, solid and rigorously timeless. Birtwistle achieves this is through selecting centres of tones and semitones which appear not to be shifting anywhere in particular. Therefore, it is hard to glean a methodology for the use of tonality so that instead the work becomes an exploration of texture.]
In SYNAPSE the clarinet part on its own can sound consonant in places however this is disrupted and transformed by its interaction with the soundscape.
SYNAPSE for Clarinet in Bb and Electronic Soundscape is commissioned by New Wind Festival 2021. It premières on Tuesday 28 September at 7:30pm at The Craxton Studios in Hampstead, London.
HER BODY, Susannah Self’s new physical theatre installation commissioned by Tête à Tête 2021 is streaming till 27 August.